The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
Author’s note: this story has appeared multiple iterations in the body of my works of a lifetime. This was before I became aware of the myth it was drawn from. This happened while I was attending a paper presented by a Roman Catholic priest at the Leeds International Medieval Studies Conference in England. The question of how the mythic asserts itself in one’s text even as we are unaware of its existence argues for a reality much deeper than our empirically grounded and philosophically justified consciouss reality, and now Melusime is my fate.
I heard a shuffling around my door then a soft knock. But when I opened the door I found nothing, nothing that is but a small very old cassette player left on my doorstep. Then I felt a shiver which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and crawl down my spine like it was alive on little centipede feet. The cold draft I felt at my back smelled like the inside of a defrosting industrial meat cooler on a 109 degree August day. Then it was gone, so I went back inside my apartment and bolted the door shut , checked the safety on my nine millimeter police special I kept under my bed and pushed the play button on the old fashioned cassette player and heard Jim’s soft deep voice whisper over the squeaking of the archaic machine.
“Paul, this is Jim McCaffery you have not seen me since twenty years ago, after I disappeared from the burn center at University of Wisconsin Hospital. As I look back at my life the weirdest thing that ever happened to me was to win the Illinois lottery. I quit my job, working with you as a janitor and decided that I was going to become a cycle racer. I had two hundred K a year tax free coming in, so, why not live a little? That kind of bread could equip me with one mother thumper of a crotch rocket. So I wanted to get the feel of it so speak as I went along I and I decided to start small, and figure out as I went along, after three weeks practice I entered a race at small track in Columbus Wisconsin 26 miles northeast of Madison. I must have had my head up my ass to think it was that easy”
Jim and I used to work as night janitors for the former University Wisconsin Madison Hospital twenty years ago. I still work there. That was before it was privatized and sold to off the highest bidder, and I lost my State Employee Union contract and all my benefits, and they also privatized Social Security, and raised the early retirement age to seventy three. Now I was the only person left on the crew that spoke English, but that’s another story, and who gives a shit about a sixty three year old pissed off janitor, who for the last thirty seven years has been cleaning the emergency room, so the rest of you wouldn’t die of infection. But like the multilingual MBA from Harvard who wears a three piece suit and runs my unit says
“You old farts have forgotten what Bob Dylan said in the sixties said.
‘The times they are a changing,’ “and if you work you might be able to keep your job, if you don’t call in sick. Call in dead if you want but don’t call in sick”
I remember that twenty years ago Jim offered me a shot at buying the winning lottery ticket, with him, but, I blew him off and he just smiled and kept it himself. We all liked big Jim, well who wouldn’t he was able to do his work and everyone else’s and still have time to read those strange books that nobody else cared about. The best part of Jim was that he was able to do this without being a self-righteous pain in the ass to everybody, and he would always wake you up at the end of your night shift if things were quiet, and you had decided to take a nap on the pile of clean laundry sacks.
I clicked the antique cassette player back on and it continued and I heard Jim’s soft deep whisper of voice say.
“I was racing my cycle at the Columbus Wisconsin Speedway, “The fastest banked dirt track in the Midwest. I was leaning into the corner and the cycle dumped.”
Even though it was twenty ago I knew what happened after that, his gas tank burst and exploded. The story had made headlines in the National Inquirer. Even some of the networks picked it up. It was just the sort of the thing they loved for the human-interest angle. The headlines went something like this.
“Lottery winner airlifted to University of Wisconsin burn center, third degree burns on 80% of his body. Condition very critical”.
I released the pause button on the cassette player, and Big Jim’s voice rolled on.
(“It’s still etched in my mind. I knew how to dump and save myself, I tucked my left leg on the opposite side of the tank and my leathers should have protected me. Then the tank blew. They should have put coagulant into the tank, but nobody heard of that in Columbus Wisconsin, nobody expected this to happen. I watched myself burn to death, my skin changing color as the leather burned away. The foam smothered the flames and the fire went out. I wish I would have lost consciousness, but I did not. They shot me up with enough morphine to have addicted a racehorse. Why the hell not, they did expect me to live. The priest gave me the last rights in the emergency room and the doctor leveled with me telling me they could keep me alive for a while but the inside of my lungs had been scorched and all my limbs would have to be amputated. I heard his voice saying ‘what do you want us to do’.
“I rasped, ‘I want to die.’
” ‘No more injections, leave me to experience my own death.’ “)
I knew the rest of the story. Big Jim did not die and the next morning he was gone from the burn center.
The Tabloids had another headline.
“Burn Victim Disappears from Hospital. Hospital staff mum, housekeeper says all tissue samples rushed to lab. Medical staff will have no further conferences with press. Big Jim continues to draw on his account, relatives try to prove him legally dead. Attorney Tormain represents McCaffery in probate. McCaffery pays $50,000 on one-day medical bill and establishes identity by matching fingerprints on bartender’s license. Medical examiners mum. Housekeeper says he should have no fingerprints. Housekeeper fired”.
I stopped thinking flipped the cassette back on and heard Jim’s Voice continue, almost like the voice of a dead friend in a dream.
“The burn center was to be my destination. I could move my head to see its layout. The patients were separated from the nurses station by a cordone sanitaire of cold air and no one could get in that was not gowned up in surgical garb, or so I thought.
“That afternoon I had a visitor. She was tall, haunting beautiful, and ethereal. Her eyes were clear and wine blue, her high cheekbones, made her look like a Tartar Princess. She had rich flaxen gold blonde hair that hung to her waist, and was loosely gathered into a single braid with matching woven gold threads. She wore a loose, flower-patterned, silk dress, and little else. I could see her breasts and taut nipples outlined against the fabric. Her black pumps had silver buckles. The buckles looked like they were made by dwarves in the hall of the mountain king. She looked like she came out of an Art Deco Dream, or nightmare.”
“I rasped at her, ‘are my angel of death?’
She smiled and curled her tongue, ‘I am no angel, but the others cannot see me. I am called Mara ‘
“She asked, ‘Do you want to live as a whole a man again?’
“I asked, ‘Is this Faust?”
“She laughed like a bubbling crystal sparkling brook. ‘No I do not want your soul, but later I will ask you for something and you will try to kill me.’
” ‘Make me whole again, heal my burns, take away the pain.’
“She kissed even licked the burns, all of them, on every part of me, and then she kissed my parched burned lips and seemed to reach inside my fire corrupted lungs. It was like no kiss I had ever known. I breathed and there was no rattle and I blinked and she was gone. In a few hours the burns had healed, the skin had grown back, and most of the pain had disappeared. She had come at 3:50 P.M. and twelve hours later I was able to sneak out the emergency exit and into the service area without the security guards seeing me. Had anyone seen me I would have looked like Boris Karloff in The Curse of The Mummy. I was able to make my apartment by sun up and I only managed to scare two very stoned students.”)
I flipped off the recorder and thought out loud
” I hoped I would see Jim again someday. I didn’t give a ratfuck for his money. I just liked to talk to him about things. There were lots of guys like him that had spent half their lives getting educated for jobs that never existed. But he was not bitter like some; he seemed to take it as a joke on himself and the world.”
He used to say
“if I were smart like you I would have just started work 20 years ago and then I could be running this place. And I would have a house so I would not have to rent an empty semi-trailer for forty a month to store my books”.
But when he won the money he decided that he had lived in his head too much. But I never saw him after his accident.
I flipped on the cassette and heard Jim’s voice continue.
“Between the dermatologist,the pathologist, and the cytologist and the faith healers I had had enough of people trying to pull me into the public eye. When they asked me to be on the 700 club that was it. I changed my name three times; lost seventy pounds of muscle I did not need at my age, shaved my beard and got my hair styled. I moved to Milwaukee and bought a three unit on 3030 North Farwell on the northeast side. And told my neighbors that I was a retired Major with 20 years of service even though I was only forty-three years old.”
It started to make sense how Jim could lose his identity. Big Jim had been a wrestler in college and when he had worked for me he said he weighed 250 pounds. But the rest of us knew that he liked to lie, and may have been a lot bigger. He would have been a different man if told us everything.
Jim’s voice proceeded.
“I was just glad to be alive and thought that I would spend my days in quite gratitude. My next obsession was chess though I only played four nights a week.
“Sometimes I thought about her though I had been celibate for the three years after the accident. It was all there and it worked but my libido had gone into semi-retirement. Then it started to come back, not like when I was seventeen, but women started to interest me again. But what do you do when you are 43, single, and afraid of getting Herpes, or worse?”)
I put my finger on the pause button and remembered what Sally one of our women co-workers had said about Jim.
“Jim is different from the rest of you horny bastards, he is strong enough to be gentle, and he has the time to listen, Jim thinks with his brain not his Dick like the rest of you.”
Jim could have had nearly any woman he wanted when we knew him, but he just couldn’t choose.
Jim’s voice rolled on.
“Then last July 11th my phone rang and I heard her voice”.
” ‘My name is Mara, I saved your life, do you remember me?’
” ‘Yes, yes, and now you have come for my soul.’
She laughed at the other end of the line.
” ‘Not your soul, but you can let me buy you dinner at Karl Ratchez. I have heard that it is the only four Star German Restaurant north of the Bergoff. I have reservations at 10:30, so it won’t be too crowded. Go in and ask for your table, they will know who you are. I will join in a few minutes later.’
” I felt like I was twelve and on my first date. I combed my hair, I smelled my arm pits, and then combed my arm pits and smelled my hair.”
The tape continued to roll, and Jim’s voice almost seemed sadly amused.
” The arrangements were perfect, The maitre d’hôte acted like I was a long lost friend and the head waiter smiled and directed me to a small booth in the back on the upper level. I ordered a stein of Bach beer and sat for fifteen minutes, listening to the string quartet, trying to feel what was happening to my life. I had the feeling that I was sitting on a sled at a top of an ice glazed precipice, and something was about to tip me over the edge.”
On and it rolled.
“Then I heard her lightly walking up the steps. She seemed to belong on an Art Deco poster and yet she was not out of place in Milwaukee in 1989. I felt lucky to see her again and I wondered how she had the power to save me.
” ‘I have little time for small talk tonight. We will eat and later tonight at your place. I want you inside of me’
“Those words are the words every horny young man dreams of hearing but they seemed to put fear in my heart.
” ‘This will be all that I will ask of you.’
“Fumbling with my Wiener schnitzel I asked her, ‘Are you on the pill?’
“I heard her laugh like a brook again and I felt a little reassured.
“I felt her hand on the inside of my thigh. Her hands were thin but very strong
” ‘Not to worry, precious one, not to worry.’ Her hands were strong and she was making me hard against my zipper.
“Then I remembered what she had said at the Burn Center. ‘I will ask you for something and then you will try to kill me.’
“My mind was fogged by feelings of love/gratitude/passion and fear.
“The cab had been waiting for two hours and as we got in she handed the driver two hundreds like it was lose change. When we arrived at my place, she was not quite as perfunctorily as I expected. She undressed with the light out, but I could see the shape of her outline against the moonlight that shone though the window. I tried to explain to her as she lay naked next to me that she really couldn’t expect to much from a man of my age who had drank almost a whole bottle of Brut and three steins of Beer.”
The pace of the voice on the tape quickened and the voice thickened.
” She took my penis in her mouth and made it hard till it nearly burst. This was not like the way she had done it at the Burn Center. Everything phased into a different state. It was as if the sled I had envisioned earlier in the restaurant was tipped infinitesimally forward and I was over the edge and flying down the ice-glazed precipice. I bounced, crashed, and spun. I careened off boulders and grazed off frozen trees. I seemed to see great dark shapes and primal salt marshes. I could see shapes crawling out of the water and then, as I crashed one last time, I felt I was on the borderland that runs around the circle of time that imprisons the universe. I thought I saw the great turtle that the world sits upon, then I realized that these were all images evoked from the depths of my own mind. I thought I saw the fire of hell burning with a pale blue inextinguishable light. She was like a bow that I could only pull back a few inches. And then I was inside of her. I did not hear bells, I did not fire skyrockets, but just at that terrible instant where passion annuals time and death, as writhed top me, and grasped her taut buttocks, driving deeper inside of her. I burst forth. My penis was not inside a beautiful woman.”
“It was inside of the cloaca of a human-sized female Salamander. I could feel her cool, slippery skin. And then every muscle in my body hurt like I had gone to my first wrestling practice in twenty years, and they had used me as the mat. She held as a biologist would a Butterfly and then she spoke.”
” ‘I meant not to deceive, it was only that at that moment I lost myself and could not sustain the illusion. I am what you saw then. My eggs need your sperm. And the rest you can guess. I am not of your world but we may replace it. You are as ugly to me as I was to you and the rest of our story is yet to be told. I could kill you in an instant, but I will not. You can find me again, I will let you know where.’
I pressed the pause button wondering if I could believe my ears and continued on with his story.
” I slipped into blackness on the edge of death and Unity and death the next morning and she was gone. Mara: May she, cursed creature that she is, rot in hell, the filthy bitch. For three days my body was wracked with pain, every muscle ached from the back of my head to the tips of my toes. I felt that I had been used in a terrible way. For three days I was tormented with an unslackable thirst and I could take no food, for it would not say inside my body. For awhile I tried to pretend that it did not happen but the pain, now lessened, but still wracking through my body, told me that it did.”
I though as I hit the pause button, why does he hate so much what saved his life, the Jim I knew was bigger than that. How can he be so filled with hate? I released the pause button.
“Months passed and my body healed but my hate and resentment grew. Sometimes I would think about the woman I made love to, but the terrible image of the Salamander would override it.
“I realized that what I hated most was that she had stolen my posterity: I had never thought or cared for children before, but now, since it had been stolen from me, I felt rage well up in me. What monster had I spawned, what abomination would this union produce? I was sure I would become mad.”
It was Jim’s voice, but his rage seemed to make the speakers in the little cassette player rattle. I stopped because I wasn’t certain I could bear to hear the rest, but then I played on.
“One day I found a small silver card in my mail box. ‘You can find me and your offspring in the back of the cave at Cave of the Mounds state park.’
I paused and continued.
” ‘I will see her, I will see her burn in hell’, I thought, ‘now what will I need to go there.’ So I went to the Marshall and Iseley bank and told them I wanted 50 gold Krugerands. At first the clerk looked at me like I was crazy and then called a vice president. He informed me that Krugerands were illegal to sell in this country, so I slipped him a five hundred-dollar bill and he had them for me in ten minutes. I remember the look in his little rat eyes when he said we would not buy them back since, of course, they are from my personal collection.
“I put the Krugerands into my money belt and went to an army surplus store on Wells Street. First I told the clerk that I wanted assault gear and a flack vest along with a pair of jungle boots, and a gas mask with breathing apparatus and an Oxygen Tank.
“He said, ‘You know buddy, you’re talking some real money for that stuff.’
“I remember the look on his face as a dropped two Krugerands on the counter. He had my gear packed in a very large duffel bag in a few minutes.
“Then I asked him, ‘How much for a flamethrower?’
“He answered, ‘Are you fucking crazy? Are you going to wipe out your family reunion? A fucking flamethrower costs 30K on the black market, and I would have to have it smuggled in from South America’
“I gave him a thousand in cash and two more Krugerands and told him to buy himself a plane ticket to Miami and ship me my flame-thrower to 3030 Farwell. He called his clerk and told him there had been an emergency and told me it would be $13,500 up front so I gave him thirty more coins and told him that he could have the remaining gold upon delivery.
“I recall him saying as he left the shop, ‘At least it’s not a concealed weapon.’ ”
“A week later my package came. I knew enough about military history that I knew how these babies worked. It was a simple mixture of jellied gasoline and propellant. I thought of Mara and the foul nest I had spawned. I would burn them back into hell. I drove to the cave in a rented truck about midnight. I assembled my gear and used my spotlight to guide me. I almost lost my balance on a narrow bridge called ‘fat mans misery’ between two pools of water. And then I walked past the part of the cave that the tourist cannot get to. It was as if there was some kind of map inside my head. A few more passages and I came upon her. She seemed to be waiting in quiet repose. She did not speak to me but her thoughts were inside of my mind.
“She said, ‘You found us easily. These twelve are your offspring and now you have come as I said you would to kill us. You had no trouble getting the flame thrower and now you care not that you live or die.’
“I looked at my offspring and screamed ‘burn! Burn! burn!’ as I turned the flamethrower on them. The whole cavern erupted into flame and the explosion took all the air away. I was spent in a minute and, gasping, I looked at them, their skins glowing a hundred different colors. Then Mara spoke to me as the woman I had made love too.
” ‘We live in the flame at the center of earth, fire cannot harm us. It cannot harm you either. When I healed you I changed you. If I had not, you would be dead now from your own fire. I do not think you can go back, I think that you are stuck down here with us.’
“I ran from her but I knew she was right. Perhaps it makes some sense, now I am a part of her and her world, please try to remember me, as I was when we worked together. I should have died in the crash; I should have not stepped out of time. Now its over for you humans you have made the world such a shit hole you can’t live in it, but something else can.
The batteries were running down, and Jim’s voice seemed to get deep and at the same time softer. It played on and he almost as if he were reconsidering what just said earlier in the tape. This poem was the last I heard of or from him, but it was Jim again somehow through it all.
” You are both moth and flame,
Fire and ice clash Scimitar behind your eyes.
I can see their blades clash in terrible light
Of dying star.
You warned me,
Mara, that your flame consumes all.
But, I, I only smile and curl my Salamanders tongue. ”
The automatic stop button clicked as the tape played out. Something had changed now the air in my apartment smelled fresher and sweet, something had changed, and I was not afraid. What the fuck humans had their chance with the planet and made and melted the ice caps and made the place to hot to live on guess it was time for something else. I guess my boss was.
“The Times they were a changing”
And the future was not human it was Hybrid